SEIU, upstart union in super-heated battle; 44,000 members at stake
NORTH BAY – Kaiser Permanente employees throughout Northern California begin voting today in a costly, high-stakes election that will likely determine the influence of two quarreling unions, each seeking to represent nearly 44,000 workers.
In one of the largest union votes to take place in decades, Kaiser employees will choose to either remain with the powerful Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or join its rival offshoot, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, with both influence and an estimated $40 million in annual dues collected at stake.
From today through Oct. 4, a mail-in vote will be conducted that could significantly alter California’s health care landscape. A vote count will begin Oct. 6. Employees could also vote for no union at all.
The two unions – in a unique battle that pits labor against labor rather than labor against employer – have clashed mightily on everything from when a vote could take place to legalities involving the existing contract that SEIU negotiated with Kaiser.
Now, as voting begins, the contentious battle has reached new heights, with NUHW proponents saying their rival puts organizational power over individual workers while SEIU advocates claim NUHW and its supporters ultimately undermine organized labor and jeopardize workers’ collective bargaining power and the existing contract.
Thousands of medical assistants, respiratory therapists, medical records clerks and housekeepers across the North Bay will take part in the vote.
In Santa Rosa, about 1,250 employees will be included; in San Rafael, about 800; in Napa, about 120; in Fairfield, about 113; in Vacaville, about 550; and in Vallejo about 1,900.
“In their 19 months of existence, [NUHW officials] have not negotiated a new contract and have done virtually nothing for the workers who have joined them,” said SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman, referring to elections at Kaiser facilities in Southern California in which NUHW won convincingly.
That vote and the subsequent negotiations with Kaiser have since become a major point of contention between the two unions and Kaiser.
A 9 percent pay raise over three years, which began in April, was negotiated by SEIU. Mr. Trossman said the 2,300 employees in Southern California who switched to NUHW aren’t receiving the benefits of the new contract, which he said exemplifies the level of power offered by each union.
NUHW, meanwhile, contests that notion, arguing that federal law stipulates the SEIU contract should remain in place regardless of the outcome of the elections.
“The federal government has already ruled in past elections and similar elections that your terms and conditions stay the same,” said Billy Occhipinti, chief of material services at Kaiser Santa Rosa and a former shop steward with SEIU until about three years ago who now supports NUHW. He and NUHW officials pointed to a statement from the National Labor Relations General Counsel that reads:
“In general, an employer is required to maintain existing contract terms when a new union is selected to represent bargaining unit employees.”
The NLRB issued a complaint alleging that Kaiser violated the National Labor Relations Act “by refusing to grant a wage increase that had been scheduled to go into effect April 1, 2010.”
A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge has been set for October to determine whether that was the case.